Our lives are noisy places. Between the hustle and bustle of work and life, we are bombarded by constant noise. In our 24/7 world, silence is of little value. The radio blares music or commentary and television beams images and stories and news. The noise level has reached such staggering levels that silence may even seem scary. We may say we yearn for peace and quiet, but when we have it, the empty space of sound is unnerving. Yet, according to Henri Nouwen, it is the silence that gives the sounds meaning.
In communication models, noise is both external and internal. External noise refers to the sounds around us such as people talking, cars honking, birds chirping, and the whir of machines or insects. Internal noise is something we aren’t often as aware of. It is the psychological interference that prevents us from listening well because we are preoccupied, worried, distracted, or in other ways unable to attend to the message. In a typical day, we usually encounter both types of noise that infringe on our silence.
From the tired parent who tells the kids to “keep it down” to the boss who asks for an hour with no interruptions, we look for ways to limit the noise level so we can find some peace in silence. Quieting our internal noise is often more difficult because it requires introspection and an acute awareness of our emotions. When we feel anxious or frustrated, we can diffuse the feelings by identifying the source and addressing the problem. It takes effort to create a silent space, but it is worth it.
In his book The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen outlines the importance of silence with profound insights. He says, “…we have become so contaminated by our wordy world that we hold to the deceptive opinion that our words are more important than our silence” (p. 51). So we keep talking, leave the television on, surf the web, and surround ourselves with sound because we think it is more productive, more engaging, more connected than silence. But in doing so it all just becomes noise and all the talking is “just words,” devoid of real meaning.
Lost in a noisy life, we miss the connection and creativity words are meant to have. As Nouwen described it, “The word no longer communicates, no longer fosters communion, no longer creates community, and therefore no longer gives life” (pp. 38-39). The solution? A new appreciation for silence that creates space for meaningful communication.
Silence means quieting our environment and our minds. It creates an empty space in the sounds that enables us to listen. When we listen in the silence, we are better equipped to speak when it is time. But if we never cease speaking and never stop the barrage of sounds that surround us inside and out, our communication merely adds to the cacophony.
The power of our words resides in the silence that birthed them. Getting quiet is a vital part of finding peace and contributing peace to the world around us. When we take steps to create space through silence, we diminish the interference of internal and external noise in our communication and relationships. “A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it” explained Nouwen (pp. 48-49). Through silence, the sounds are endowed with meaning and change from noise into creative communication that fosters connection, community, and growth.
Share your thoughts! How do you handle the noise in your life? What does silence look like for you?